Thursday, 19 July 2012

Review: Nazo no Kanojo X

Nazo no Kanojo X

“Ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking”
--Zaphod Beeblebrox

Solid character design and a charmingly cute romance are undercut by a bizarre fixation on an obscure fetish, leaving little behind but an uncomfortable feeling and a sticky mess after it.  Final Grade: C+

Can I get these characters, but in a good show?
    Character design in anime, since the advent of The Database, has been remarkably simple.  Just grab some common stock character builds, like a tsundere, a rich girl, a clumsy girl or a genki blockhead, (each of which comes with pre-packaged tropes to follow), toss in an uncommon one, like the earnest kouhei, to differentiate yourself, spend twelve episodes doing cute things, (at least two swimsuit episodes are required these days), and volia! you just made K-On a blockbuster.  Real, honest character building, using realistic, complete characters is both difficult and rare, and sadly doesn't sell as well.  Surprisingly, Nazo no Kanojo X does just that, and while it's not the greatest character development, it is still pretty good and it is miles ahead of similar shows in its genre.  The lion's share of this development goes to Urabe, whom they take great care in crafting a mysterious aura around.  Everything about her is veiled in secrecy: her past, her family, her feelings, and her unnatural physiology.  Like an onion, each layer of her that is peeled back only reveals more layers under the surface, more mysteries left unanswered.  This doesn't make anything easier for the male lead, who has to deal with this on top of all the other issues associated with an awkward teenage romance.  All too often, a romance culminates with the hero getting the girl, but few deal with what happens next.  Nazo no Kanojo X revels in exploring, navigating, and sometimes exploding the minefields that surround adolescent love.  The male lead does have a bad case of the otaku milquetoast-ism (a truly terrifying disease), but he avoids being a complete loser, and is a good vehicle for expressing all the uncertainty generated by Urabe's actions.  And if things weren't awkward enough between the two, an interloper inserts herself into the middle of the relationship.  Oka acts as a friend/mentor to Urabe, often giving relationship advice that backfires more times than not.  She has an important role in the story, existing to humanize Urabe, breaking her stoic shell and revealing that the female lead has just as little idea on how to be in a relationship as the male does.  Watching this socially inept duo stumble their way through romance is a beautiful thing, and this would have been a great show—if that was all that was to it.

Astarotte's Law
Astarotte's Law is a concept that I developed to describe why shows like this one always fall apart at the end.  Simply put, it means that shows with a gross/offensive premise will, despite clever writing or strong characters, will regress to a godawful show by the end of the run.  Basically, this is caused by the fact the author is not trying to write a good story, but rather to showcase his fetishes, and these fetishes will always take precedence over the rest of the story.  In the eponymous case, the first five episodes describe the touching redemption of a psychologically damaged girl, and are quite good, only to finish the show off with crude and ham-fisted sexualization, a return to the crude sexualization of the premise.  Nazo no Kanojo X also falls victim to the Law: despite how well designed the characters maybe, the story only exist to fulfill the fetish of the author, and the over-emphasis on that fetish damages the rest of the story.
    I'm not judging Girlfriend X on the basis of whether its fetish is horrible or disgusting—it is—but horrible and disgusting things do not themselves make a bad show.  It is how those things are used that matter.  In this show, the spit fetish (or spitish, as I dub it) is consider to be a good thing, a normal thing, a physical manifestation of an emotional bond, but they never truly are able to justify this position or explain it to the audience.  The spitish is treated as if it were unremarkable to want to devour another's saliva, which is hard to suspend disbelieve on.  And the while it is meant to be a chaste kind of kiss, it can not overcome the fact that it looks absolutely disgusting.   Think of spit or drool.  How would you describe it?  Sticky, bubbly, perhaps, thin, long, and stringy.  Now I don't know the right way to draw drool, but I know a wrong way-the way Nazo no Kanojo X did it.  A fingerfull of it isn't covered as much as capped, as if the finger was dipped in honey or molasses, viscous enough to be basically solid.  It doesn't look normal or natural, it looks sick and inhuman, like an encasing of snot, and the yellow tint it often has doesn't help anything.  There are a number of yellowish fluids that leave the human body, and you shouldn't consume any of them, unless you're Bear Grylls or something.  Not only that, but when Urabe gets excited, she tends to start vomiting drool, spreading buckets of this mutant liquid everywhere, in a display that would put the most iron-stomached man off his lunch. 
    But horrible animation isn't the worst sin of X's spitish, as it causes horrible writing as well.  The damage is particularly strong in the second half of the show.  There are great efforts to make drool drinking seem completely normal, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Especially awkward is the scene with the hero's old flame, as she not only laughs about his creepy stalker actions, she is quite interested in sharing her saliva with the dude, instead of being totally creeped out.  I am willing to accept some coincidence in the name of expediency, but these characters are so open-minded it is unbelievable.  Not only that, but the lines are dialogue in this scene are stilled and wooden (a clumsy Crunchyroll translation doesn't help matters, but not even Shakespeare could save this crap).  The bad dialogue continues in the older sister's tale, a pathetic attempt to tie the drool theme into her life story as well.  Here, instead of letting a story to grow naturally, they started with the conclusion and hammered events into place to support it, leaving behind a very wooden and unemotional waste of time. 
    But the worst thing about the spitish is that it undercuts the romance by introducing an external bond.  The couple doesn't get together because of love, but rather because of a vampiric dependency on Urabe's spittle.  Unless the hero is continually supplied with lysine drool, he'll slip into a coma and die.  While the bond is reversed from the normal girl on boy common to seinen shows, it is not any better and reinforces the ideal that love alone can not sustain a relationship, a physical dependency is needed as well.  This idea is harmful and offensive, and it neutralizes a lot of what was good with the romance.  The bond is also generally used as an excuse to bring the characters together, but in this case, they are already an item, so it is unnecessary.  The spit fetish, and its, shall I say, sadomasochistic aura, works at counter purposes to the innocent romance that is all that is good with this show.  One or the other has to win, and Astarotte's Law holds.
    The endgame of the show suffers, however, even when not dealing with spit.  The episodes with the old flame seemed to hold potential, but it quickly fell apart into unnecessary fanservice in its improbable climax.  But at least it follows a logical progression, unlike the episode telling the aforementioned sister's story (and did anyone find it creepy the way the hero stares lustfully at his sister's drool?).  And there is the whole idol magazine subplot that just disappears into thin air, but not before the hero makes an utter asshole out of himself. 

I can not help but to compare Nazo no Kanojo X to Iketeru Futari, as both deal with the courting of a mysterious and cold woman by a hapless man.  Spitish aside, Iketeru Futari succeeded because it focused wholly on the romance and made development its primary goal.  Nazo no Kanojo X lacks that focus, drifting through its romance while proselytizing its fetish.  The intriguing dream subplot never went anywhere, the characters never get past the holding hands point, and viewer never gets the feeling that this is made to last.  Unlike Iketeru Futari's stupidly aggressive lead, X's passiveness fails to generate any sympathy, and even minor transgressions cause irreversible harm to his character.  In the end, Girlfriend X over-emphasizes its spit fetish to the point of ridicule, and not even the strong romance can overcome that.

Plot: 4
Art: 6
Sound: 9
Characters: 8
Enjoyment: 5
Value: 5
    Watchablity: 5
    Re-watchablity: 2
    Historical: 8